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The brain is the central organ for adaptation to experiences, including stressors, which are capable of changing brain architecture as well as altering systemic function through neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune, and metabolic systems. Because the brain is the master regulator of these systems, as well as of behavior, alterations in brain function by chronic stress can have direct and indirect effects on cumulative allostatic overload, which refers to the cost of adaptation. There is much new knowledge on the neural control of systemic physiology and the feedback actions of physiologic mediators on brain regions regulating higher cognitive function, emotional regulation, and self-regulation. The healthy brain has a considerable capacity for resilience, based upon its ability to respond to interventions designed to open "windows of plasticity" and redirect its function toward better health. As a result, plasticity-facilitating treatments should be given within the framework of a positive behavioral intervention; negative experiences during this window may even make matters worse. Indeed, there are no magic bullets and drugs cannot substitute for targeted interventions that help an individual become resilient, of which mindfulness-based stress reduction and meditation are emerging as useful tools.
Experiential factors shape the neural circuits underlying social and emotional behavior from the prenatal period to the end of life. These factors include both incidental influences such as early adversity as well as intentional influences that can be produced in humans through specific interventions designed to promote prosocial behavior and well-being. Key extant evidence in animal models and humans is reviewed. While the precise mechanisms of plasticity are still not fully understood, moderate to severe stress appears to increase growth of several sectors of the amygdala while effects in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex tend to be opposite. Structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other prosocial characteristics might be enhanced through training.